Brock Laschowski sums up his graduate career with a simple programming note.
“When I explain to people what I did for my masters, I typically referred to it as a MythBusters episode,” said the Kinesiology graduate.
Like the popular a Discovery Channel show, Laschowski is turning convention on its ear, especially as it relates to the mechanics of oars and rowing. However, unlike the television program, his work, recently published in the Journal of Sports Engineering & Technology, will provide quantitative measures to elite rowing teams worldwide allowing them to decide whether they should invest further resources into meticulously studying different oar settings.
When deciding which masters program to pursue, Laschowski received a call from the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario, which supports all Olympic and Paralympic sports in Canada.
“They asked me if I were interested in going to Western, because they had an opportunity for me to work with Dr. Volker Nolte, a world-leading rowing biomechanist , while simultaneously conducting my masters research in collaboration with the Canadian Olympic Rowing Program, which is also based in London,” Laschowski explained.
“Having the opportunity to work directly with the Olympic program, while completing my thesis, it was two birds with one stone.”
Nolte is the head rowing coach and assistant professor at Western, where he teaches biomechanics and coaching. Since 1993, he has led the men’s rowing team to 11 Ontario University Athletics Championships and four Canadian University Rowing Championships. Since 2010, he is also the head coach for the women’s program.
Oddly enough, when offered the research opportunity, Laschowski had no previous rowing experience.
“Before my masters at Western, I worked as a part-time laboratory assistant at the CSIO; they were already familiar with my work,” he said. “My area of expertise is sports biomechanics. If you have a fundamental understanding of biomechanics, in theory, you have the means to scientifically study any sport.”
Laschowski investigates the effects of oar-shaft stiffness and length on rowing biomechanics. His research accounts for the first-ever experimental investigation into the effects of the shaft’s properties on elite performance.
Prior to his work, there were two generally accepted theories about rowing oars – one based on stiffness, one based on length.
The former has to do with oar-shaft deflection. When the blades enter the water and the rower pulls on the handles, the oar-shafts bend as the blades experience resistance while moving through the water. This deflection stores elastic potential energy in the shaft’s material. Toward the end of the rowing stroke, the oars, presumably, have a ‘whipping effect’ whereby all the potential energy is transferred into kinetic energy, and the boat dramatically propels forward. Less stiff oar-shafts supposedly propel the boat more.
“This theory is largely based on theology developed amongst the rowing community. Not having a rowing background was advantageous because it allowed me to analysis this problem from a purely objective scientific perspective,” Laschowski said.
The latter assumption has been traditionally explained using lever theory. In a basic lever system, if someone where to apply a force to the longer side of a lever, shortening the lever on the other side of the pivot point allows one to lift more weight for the same effort – think of a seesaw. Nolte was the first to apply this concept to rowing. He showed, mathematically, that for a given inboard length and blade design, a shorter oar would result in larger blade forces. However, his theoretical model lacked experimental validation, Laschowski said.
In collaboration with the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario and Western’s Varsity Rowing Program, Laschowski was able to experiment with elite-level athletes. In the experiments, rowers were supplied with medium and extra-soft oars, both of which were tested at three different lengths. The athletes performed multiple trials for each setup.
“The biomechanical differences we measured between rowing with the different stiffness and lengths were minimal, even smaller than the differences between strokes,” Laschowski said. “The experimental results do not necessarily support the two theories.”
In ice hockey, for example, minimal variations in shaft’s length and stiffness have been shown to dramatically affect performance. However, that does not appear to be the case in rowing.
Laschowski’s study suggests oar-shaft stiffness and length are not the determining factors for performance as previously believed.
“Right now, Olympic programs around the world put considerable time and effort into achieving optimal boat setups. My research provides quantitative measures which can help teams decide whether they should invest further resources into meticulously studying different oar settings,” Laschowski remarked.
Laschowski is currently working with Paralympic wheelchair curlers at the University of Waterloo’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, while completing his second master’s degree in engineering. He aspires to pursue and learn more about engineering so, as an engineer working in Kinesiology, he can apply science to the practical side of sport.